If Managing Mailer is only half-great, it’s because Flaherty, who would write a very good novel called Tin Wife before succumbing to cancer in 1983, had to spend about half his time dealing with nuts and bolts instead of his leading men. Some readers might find that a good thing. Flaherty did have a serious case of hero-worship. To him, Mailer was a visionary: “He proceeded to take [the audience] on a tour of America’s spiritual wasteland, stopping along the way for commentary on our alienation, racism, technological madness, and impotence… convincing a collective body that the sadness in his soul was symbolic of the sadness in the land, that his personal tragedies weren’t encased in his psyche but wrapped in a shroud of red, white and blue.”

But as much as the author idolized the candidates, he was objective enough to call a spade—well, something spade-like. “Flaherty treats a dozen delicate egos like golf balls, and then proceeds to see how far he can whap them,” blurbed Mailer on the cover of the 1971 paperback edition, and there’s some truth to this assessment. We see Breslin’s moodiness and Mailer’s nastiness and unreliability when drinking. One comes away from the book very sorry to have missed their candidacy, but not very sorry that they lost.

One of the real pleasures of Managing Mailer is realizing what isn’t there. This was a campaign composed of gifted amateurs who were full of ideas, many of them half-baked, about how to win. David Garth and Pat Caddell and Roger Ailes were just inaugurating the era of pollsters, consultants, and media masters; this was one of the last homemade efforts. It’s quaint and somewhat amusing to read that having gathering 15,000 precious signatures needed to qualify Mailer for the ballot, Flaherty locked the vital papers in Art D’Lugoff’s safe at The Village Gate. Also absent is the omnipresent cadre of bankers and brokers who dominate our town today. Mailer spoke in peoples’ apartments, collecting five-dollar checks from skeptic liberals who today live in Larchmont and Great Neck and probably still dine out on their story of meeting Mailer.

Present, instead, is a literary New York that is gone. This is a candidacy of writers (indeed, Steinem rebuffed the momentary notion that she run for comptroller because she didn’t want the thing to look like “a campy literary exercise.”) The candidates charted their ups and down by what Murray Kempton or James Wechsler wrote in the Post and what Sidney Zion or Russell Baker said in the Times. They even took note of a rather carnal evaluation of the candidates that appeared in Screw. At one rally, Mailer even argued that the reason “everybody is going crazy in this city [is] because they have no objective correlative.” Barack Obama may be a literary politician, but you can bet he never made a point like that.

In the end, Mailer and Breslin could never surmount the cloud of dilettantism that dogged their effort. On election day, both candidates lost, each finishing ahead of one rival—and on they went, to many other adventures and triumphs. No doubt there were many other excellent writers in their era, maybe even some better ones. But they were the stars, and it’s fair to say that their quixotic campaign, so vividly conveyed in Flaherty’s memoir, is what first made them larger than life.

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Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Spy, Time and Playboy. He is the author of the novel The Coup.